Tag Archives: Anabaptist history

On motivating Christians to holy living

(Old Facebook Post)

I once heard three seasoned conservative Anabaptist church leaders (many of you would recognize their names instantly) discuss the challenge of motivating church members to live holy lives. Specifically, they discussed how to help members walk in holiness without the presence of multiple church standards.

The first described the difficulty of awakening in members a sense of modesty. He said he found this most difficult to achieve among those who had grown up in settings with many prescribed standards. The second then turned to third with an observation phrased as a question: Is it not true that in your church fellowship (different than the speaker’s own) the members who are giving you the greatest challenges are those from backgrounds with many church standards? The third affirmed that this, indeed, is true.

Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours? Buy on Amazon I have often pondered that conversation. I remembered it again last night when I read this from Roland Allen’s classic book, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (written in 1912, by an Anglican missionary):

“In our dealings with our native converts we habitually appeal to law. We attempt to administer a code which is alien to the thought of the people with whom we have to deal, we appeal to precedents which are no precedents to them, and we quote decisions of which our hearers do not understand either the history or the reason. Without satisfying their minds or winning the consent of their consciences, we settle all questions with a word.”

That paragraph sounds like the experience of some youth in some of our Anabaptist churches. But it is the next paragraph that reminded me of the above conversation:

“This is unfortunate because it leaves the people unconvinced and uneducated, and teaches them the habit of unreasoning obedience. They learn to expect law and to delight in the exact fulfilment of precise and minute directions. By this method we make it difficult to stir the consciences of our converts, when it is most important that their consciences should be stirred. Bereft of exact directions, they are helpless. They cease to expect to understand the reason of things, or to exercise their intelligence. Instead of seeking the illumination of the Holy Ghost they prefer to trust to formal instructions from their foreign guides. The consequence is that when their foreign guide cannot, or will not, supply precise commands, they pay little heed to his godly exhortations. Counsels which have no precedent behind them seem weak. Anything which is not in open disobedience to a law can be tolerated. Appeals to principles appear vague and difficult. They are not accustomed to the labour of thinking them out and applying them. If a missionary explains to his converts that some act is not in harmony with the mind of Christ his words fall on deaf ears: if he tells them that it was forbidden in a council of such and such a date, they obey him; but that is the way of death not of life; it is Judaism not Christianity; it is papal not Pauline.”

Allen ends this chapter with these probing words:

“Christians are not only what they are by nature, they are a Spirit-bearing body. It is not a question merely of our faith in them: it is still more a question of faith in the Holy Ghost. We look too much at our converts as they are by nature: St Paul looked at his converts as they were by grace.”


I dream of writing a book inspired in part by Roland Allen’s book, called perhaps “A Pure Church: St. Paul’s Methods or Ours?” It would give a brief historical overview of Anabaptist methods of producing pure churches, then systematically survey Paul’s approaches to the same goal in each of the churches he founded (and what he envisioned that goal to look like), then compare the two, ending with a challenge to change our methods where they don’t line up with Paul’s.

Subtopics could include issues like leadership and authority (source, limits, use of), congregational decision-making methods (biblical and current), membership paradigms (who is my brother?), keeping unity of the Spirit while building toward unity of the faith (Eph 4), true nature of NT separation (physical vs. spiritual), covenantal contrasts between OT pure community (Israel) and NT pure community (Church), inclusion/discipleship of new believers and exclusion of sinful believers (conversion, baptism, catechism, training, disciplining, excommunicating), methods/grounds of motivation toward holiness, training by grace (Titus 2), the regenerate/Spirit-filled nature of the true believer, etc., etc.

We Anabaptists can sometimes become so enamored with parsing our own history (congratulating ourselves, selectively and favorably comparing ourselves with other groups, justifying current practices based on trends of 50 years ago, aiming for pragmatic solutions that will preserve our churches unchanged for centuries) that we fail to listen closely to Scripture as we ought. Perhaps it is true that, when looking for guidance on practical church governance, we look more to history than to God’s Word. We base decisions on our own Anabaptist history; the early Anabaptists examined their history in light of God’s Word and made changes. I’ve heard it said that we now have our theology already worked out, with the implication our doctrine is basically all correct and we just need to get busy putting it into practice. I think a close look at Paul’s vision for the church is a necessary corrective for every generation, including ours. (And not just Paul’s; such a book could draw from Jesus and the rest of the NT, too.)

Enough ranting. May we proceed in love and be open to correction ourselves.

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“Men learned in the Greek and Hebrew languages”

(Old Facebook Post)

Did you know that Conrad Grebel and Felix Mantz were “men learned in the German, Latin, Greek, and also Hebrew, languages”? (From the Hutterite Chronicle.) Felix Mantz had even been marked out by Zwingli for teacher of Hebrew in Zwingli’s projected evangelical academy. The Hutterite Chronicle also states that “soon thereafter [after the first re-baptism service] several others made their way to them [to Grebel, Mantz, and Blaurock], for example, Balthasar Hubmaier of Friedberg, Louis Haetzer, and still others, men well instructed in the German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages, very well versed in Scripture.”

Do we have such men in our churches today? Or we content to pretend such education is really unnecessary–claiming, on the one hand, that Scripture is plain enough that education beyond high school is only likely to confuse our interpretation and relying, on the other hand, rather casually on the expert scholarship of others–those who translate our Bibles for us, produce our Bible dictionaries and commentaries, and do the heavy work for us of refuting false doctrine by their careful exegesis of Scripture? Should our own heritage teach us something about the crucial role of exegesis in biblical languages? (I’m posting these questions as someone who cannot read Hebrew or Greek.)

Follow-up reflections:

Conservative Anabaptists have no truly first-rate Bible scholars, to my knowledge (despite lots of wonderful second and third-rate Bible teachers), and I think our doctrine suffers for it in ways that tend to hamper the health of our churches and the success of our witness.

I remember John Piper once stopping in the middle of one of his teaching sessions (something pretty technical, I forget) and telling his audience that most of them should not live the life he does. He told of how he walked passed a homeless man on the way to the meeting, too busy to help because of the fast pace of his life as a scholar-pastor-teacher. Most people should be free enough to stop and help. His point was that the church needs a few people like himself and lots of people not like himself. I think he was right. I’m arguing we might not have the few scholars that we need.

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Coffman and the origin of 7 ordinances

(Old Facebook Post)

Apparently the traditional 7 Mennonite ordinances go back one step earlier than Daniel Kauffman and his “Doctrines” books, to evangelist J. S. Coffman in 1891 or earlier. Here is an excerpt from a fascinating article by Mark R. Wenger in the Mennonite Quarterly Review that tells the story (through the lens of the topic of anointing with oil):

Despite his personal unfamiliarity with anointing the sick, sometime in the next decade Coffman began to refer to it as an “ordinance” of the church. The term “ordinance” had been used widely and loosely across the church to refer both to shared understandings that governed church life, and specific church ceremonies like baptism and Lords’ Supper. [32] By 1891, however, Coffman had begun to give “ordinances” a more precise meaning, even providing a definitive list of them.

Coffman usually opened his series of revival services with an emphasis on repentance, new birth, faith and salvation. Toward the end of a revival series, Coffman nearly always took an explicitly doctrinal tack, teaching the ordinances and restrictions of the church. These were firmly buttressed with Scripture citations rather than appeals to tradition. In his diary he sometimes noted the sermon topic as “Ordinances as Symbols,” and referred to the ordinances “as a chain.”[33]

In the wake of a particularly long-running and successful revival series in 1891 in Waterloo County, Ontario, Coffman compiled and published a four-page pamphlet entitled Fundamental Bible References, the earliest compilation of Mennonite ordinances that specifically includes anointing with oil. Under the heading “Requirements of Obedience,” Coffman included “Ordinances,” “Duties” and “Restrictions.” The Ordinances were listed with short descriptions and scriptural references as follows:

Principal Ordinances-Heb. 9:1

(1) Baptism with Water

(2) Communion

(3) Footwashing

Secondary Ordinances-1 Cor. 11:2

(1) Prayer Head-Covering for the Women

(2) Greeting with the Holy Kiss

(3) Marriage

(4) Anointing with Oil for the Recovering of the Sick

It’s historical research like this that makes you stop and think: How much that we consider completely normal… would have never become reality at all, had it not been for a whole slew of “accidents” of history… like a conversation here, a personal letter there, a person here who had the means to travel and share the idea, a periodical article there, which was read by so-and-so, and one more person who “happened” to think writing a book about it was important, etc…. And WHAM! Suddenly we have a brand new FORMAL LIST of “ordinances” that thousands of people grow up assuming has always around, handed down from Mount Calvary. Nothing like studying history to help you break free of chronological snobbery and live disoriented by culture shock within your very own social backyard–and turn to the Bible for better foundations.

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